By Ayya Yeshe
Today I saw a photo of a man’s shrine online.
For most Buddhists, this would be a fairly normal to see a shrine filled with pictures of male Teachers, Saints and enlightened beings. We are so conditioned by patriarchy to not notice male dominance everywhere, to notice the male narrative everywhere.
What I saw was 19 male teachers and two female teachers.
That is not considered exceptional to most Buddhists. That is our standard. For me this shrine was symptomatic with every kind of marginalization and discrimination I received since I ordained as a nun 17 years ago. This shrine reflected that the glass ceiling for Buddhist female teachers and nuns is real.
The problem of 19 male teachers and two female teachers is not just limited to this man’s shrine. His shrine is just representative of a Buddhist tradition and history that has been written and controlled by men. In Asia, and many times in the West too, the largest Centres are controlled by men or raise money for men’s monasteries back in India. This is certainly the case in Tibetan Buddhism.
When we read the lineage, prayer women are hardly heard of. In every centre the Tibetan Lama has pride of place, and yet most of the centres are funded by and cater to Western women. They are often supported by the unpaid labor of a Western nun and yet in most Tibetan Centres you will find that the Tibetan Lama is exalted and stays for free and the Western nun pays to stay, works outside and also works for the Centre for free.
Where are the equally represented women on thrones and in leadership? Where is the representation of diversity in teachers that represents the people who are actually coming to teachings?
The people who come to and support Centres are largely women. Why are women still the supporters, but not the throne holders of tradition and the recipients of training and leadership? Moreover, why are Western Tibetan Buddhists only supporting Tibetan Lamas and not practitioners from their own country? Tibetan monasteries in exile are now well established.
What has made us lose faith in our own capacity as Westerners to hold the Dharma and carry it on?
Why are we not investing in this? Too many people think that Buddhist practice is just about them and their realization/happiness. But attitudes like that are short sighted when we see that all beings are interconnected by a web of mutuality, and that the Buddhist tradition needs community and centres/translators/meditators to keep the lineage alive for future generations.
When I asked the Tibetan Buddhist male who posted this photo on social media where the women were, he blocked me. He would not even engage on a discussion about this. He used the time-honoured dismissal of so many Buddhists who don’t want to look at the reality of so many nuns and Buddhist teachers.
Buddhas are beyond gender. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but the Tibetan word for woman is kyemen—low born. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but most Theravada nuns in South East Asia cannot take full ordination. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but nuns monasteries are always much poorer than male monasteries. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but there are very, very few female throne holders. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but all of the wealth and academic knowledge of Buddhism is in the hands of men. Enlightenment is beyond gender, but the Burmese threw a fully ordained nun in jail, tormented her and forced her to disrobe.
Enlightenment is beyond gender but so many texts will tell you women can’t become Buddhas.
This dismissal of the oppression women face by white washing has to end. Buddhists need to face the inequalities in our tradition and change them. Enlightenment should be beyond gender, but when our gender is used as a weapon against us to keep us out of leadership, education and institutions and from taking the time and the resources we need to practice, gender is not irrelevant; it is extremely pertinent. Throughout history and even now, Buddhist women have less access to resources, training, power, a voice and places to ordain. The unpaid labor of many women has supported men and allowed them to “leave the world” for 2600 years.
To this man, and to the Buddhists who support the patriarchal structures that have kept women out and made so many Western nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition disrobe (70-80%), after seventeen years working for the Buddhist community struggling on the periphery I want to say:
I am not making a statement about you or the qualities of the male teachers you have on your shrine. I’m just inviting you to step into the world of female Buddhist teachers and see that we are not equally supported, visible or represented and that we don’t have the same opportunities and that your shrine/Centre. And who you revere reflects that.
I am honestly happy that you have so much devotion and so many teachers who you have been blessed by. What I’m inviting you to do is to widen your circle of compassion and see how it is for women who are shut out of so many opportunities because of our gender.
19 male teachers and one female teacher pretty much reflects how it is for women in Buddhism. We go into a temple and we see only men on thrones. We are told that “we have dakinis.'” We have an Arhat Maichee’.
But really go to any temple and see who is on the throne and who is in the kitchen or cleaning the toilet. Who has massive temples and which monastics are working in the fields? Who is educated and illustrious and who has so internalized spiritual patriarchy that they are praying to be reborn as men? Who is bowed to and who asked to wash the monk’s robes? Whose story is told and whose is not? And whose labour is rewarded and who is just regarded as a beast of burden?
The only people who say gender doesn’t matter are those for whom it works out well.
Ayya Yeshe is the Abbess of Dakini Bodhicitta Monastery, which is now forming in Australia. She is the director of a socially engaged Buddhist charity for ex “untouchable” Dalit Buddhists in Nagpur, India. Ayya is a contemplative, activist and a socially engaged Buddhist who travels internationally to teach. She is the author of Everyday Enlightenment by Harper Collins and her sacred chants on Youtube have 58,000 hits.
Editor: Dana Gornall